Words That Kill: Metal Gear and the Genocide of Native Americans

The following is an analysis of the latest and final Metal Gear Solid V trailer, cut by Hideo Kojima himself. As with the previous E3 trailers, this one beautifully sets up the themes of the game set to awesome music. This analysis will focus primarily on the theme of language as a tool of subjugation and how that relates to the Native American experience.

The characters in the trailer make many bold statements about how language is core to human identity and also the most powerful tool there is for control over society. I’d first like to focus on the passage spoken by Code Talker.

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“Since ancient times, every civilization’s ruler has had the same idea: When people unite under one will, they become stronger than the sum of their parts. And what do rulers use to bring people together? Language.”

Code_Talker

Code Talker is described as “a wise man denied his homeland.” It’s very important to note that he is Native American. His name is a reference to real life “code talkers,” who used Native American languages to transmit secret coded messages during World War 2.

Real American heroes. Navajo code talkers during WW2.
Navajo code talkers during WW2.

Code talker is played by Jay Tavare, an actor who has previously won “Best Actor” at the American Indian Film Festival. He is also a notable blogger and supporter of Native American non-profit groups.

Also he totally played Vega in the classic 1994 film Street Fighter: The Movie
Also he totally played Vega in the classic 1994 film Street Fighter: The Movie

So why is it so important that Code Talker is the one delivering this message to Big Boss? Because every statement about language in this trailer has directly played out in the real life history of the various Native American peoples.

After decimating their population and taking their lands, the governments of America and Canada forced Native people into reservations and consciously tried to eradicate their language and culture. Children were taken away from their homes and placed in mandatory boarding schools meant to assimilate them into Christian, European American culture. These children were torn from their families, moved sometimes hundreds of miles away from home, forbidden to speak their native language, to wear their native clothes or carry on their native customs and beliefs. They were forced to cut their hair, convert to Christianity and take on new Anglicized names and identities.

This experience is paralleled in the life of Skull Face, the enigmatic antagonist of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes who also plays a big part in this trailer.

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“When he was a young boy he lost his native language. The bedrock for any developing child. His country, his family, his face, his identity, everything was stolen from him.”

This quote starts off overlaid on top of these guns and telescopic sites. Words can kill.
This quote starts off overlaid on top of these guns and telescopic sites. Words can kill.

Skull Face can be heard saying:

“I was born in a small village. I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders I was made to speak their language. With each new post my masters changed. Along with the words they made me speak. With each change, I changed too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong. Words can kill.”

 This is not an overstatement. Words have the power to kill people and entire cultures.

The American Indian boarding schools were founded in the 1880s, when the Native American population had fallen to 250,000 people, a 98% reduction of their population since the arrival of Columbus. The flagship school was Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded by Captain Richard Henry Pratt under the authority of the US government in 1879.

Richard Henry Pratt in full military regalia
Richard Henry Pratt in full military regalia

Pratt famously stated that his intention was to “Kill the Indian: Save the man”

Pratt believed that it was his duty to “civilize” Native Americans for their own good. Pratt was a former captain in the US military and organized his male students as if they were a military regiment. He used corporal punishment on any students who exhibited any “Indian” behavior.

It may come as a shock to hear that Pratt was considered a progressive advocate of Native American rights in his time. He truly believed he was doing good and felt real affection for many of his students. Native Americans would not even be granted US Citizenship until 1924, and the US had a long history of outright killing Natives on sight, so by contrast, forced Americanization must have seemed like the merciful path.

Pratt was Second Lieutenant in the 10th United States Cavalry, an African-American regiment consisting of freedman and freed slaves better known as the "Buffalo Soldiers
Pratt was Second Lieutenant in the 10th United States Cavalry, an African-American regiment consisting of freedman and freed slaves better known as the “Buffalo Soldiers

Pratt’s sentiment is echoed in the trailer, where Ocelot is describing Skull Face’s goal:

“Words are what keep civilization, our world, alive. Free the world not by taking men’s lives, but by taking their tongues.”

Pratt earnestly believed that Native Americans (and also African Americans) were inherently equal to whites, they were just held back by their inferior upbringing. By killing every trace of their original culture, destroying their customs and replacing their language with English, Pratt believed he was freeing Natives to live in a brighter future, one nation, under god with liberty and justice for all (who conformed to the standards he set).

BoardingSchool
source: http://users.humboldt.edu/ogayle/hist110/unit3/indians.html

Pratt’s school provided the basis for hundreds of other American Indian Boarding Schools. They would have a devastating, far reaching impact on the indigenous people of America.

art-eater_metal_gear_solid_V_MGSV_the_phantom_pain_American_Indian_Boarding_School_Students

Between 1880 and 1925, half of all Native American children were coerced into attended these schools. Of those that enrolled, half would die from disease, malnutrition, harsh punishment or suicide. Those that graduated largely found that they no longer fit into life on the reservations or in mainstream America. They no longer had a home anywhere.

This trauma is still felt today. Here is a video of a Native woman named Annie Smith reciting a poem she wrote inspired by her great uncle who died as a child in an American Indian boarding school. He choked to death on a bar of soap that was crammed into his mouth as punishment for daring to speak his native language.

After the death of her brother, Annie Smith’s grandmother did not allow her children to speak their native Yakama and Umatilla languages out of fear for their safety. Their tongues were taken from them.

source: https://sbfphc.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/youth-suicide-in-indian-country/
source: https://sbfphc.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/youth-suicide-in-indian-country/

American Indian Boarding Schools were established in the 1880s, around the time of Code Talker’s Birth (he is over 100 years old). And they aren’t just relics of a bygone era, they continued to operate into the 1980s, when Metal Gear Solid V takes place.

Ironically, the Native languages that the government tried so hard to kill would become very valuable during World War 2. By that time, people who could speak Native American languages were so rare that they were used to convey secret coded messages for the US military. These languages that were banned were suddenly found new value in their utility for war. Language as a weapon. Words that kill (and also saved a lot of US lives of course). It almost goes without saying that Code Talker must have been a code talker.

I don’t know how much of this history will directly manifest MGSV: The Phantom Pain when it finally comes out, but I’m willing to bet Kojima and his team are aware of it. One of the reasons I love Metal Gear so much, aside from the great gameplay and BRILLIANT art is that Metal Gear has such thoughtful themes. The series is never afraid to take a deeper look at history; to examine it from more perspectives than just that of the victors. These games tackle real issues that aren’t commonly spoken of. The fancy sermons they deliver aren’t just pretty words, they are themes that have precedent in history.

Playing these games has inspired me to learn more about the world we live in and how it came to be this way. I look forward to this final chapter in the Metal Gear Saga. I hope you all look forward to more of our writing on it in the future!

If you haven’t already read it, please check out our analysis of the previous Metal Gear Solid V: TPP trailers!

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Song (E3 2014)

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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Analysis (E3 2013)

Who is Eli?

Addendum
I posted this article to the Metal Gear Solid Fan Club on Facebook and received some really great feedback. One comment really stood out to me. I’m going to repost it here because it’s just too good to scatter to the heartless sea of social media. I’m just an outside observer when it comes to Native American matters, but here’s some real insight from Jake Valliere, who gives us an insider’s perspective:

There’s a lot to this. I’m Native American myself and I can share a few things I’ve learned that would help etch out the background for this.

First off, Native Boarding Schools still exist to this day. They have been refined from the past 100+ years to formulate a coercive plan to educate Native Americans across the country. At first, they were almost concentration camps for us. Half of our population census was deemed relevant towards the plan of “forced education”. Ideals such as religion, language, culture, and ways of life were all forced into the minds of Native Americans. They were told that what they knew was wrong, and if they were to disobey an order, such as speaking our own language, they would be punished accordingly. There was little resources given to children in boarding schools. Bare minimum food was given, along with very little healthcare. It wasn’t uncommon to hear of malnutrition, widespread diseases, and the like. It wasn’t like anyone was there to help either. Most people knew about the harsh extremities and chose to look the other way in terms of harsh punishment, and in some cases, torture.

Today, these effects are still felt. Many Native American people have no idea on how to speak their different languages because of the constant punishments given if spoken. Believe it or not, Native American’s probably had over 1,000 different languages across the country! However, this has drastically reduced and a number of languages became “extinct” as there were nobody else to pass on the culture. It’s almost a reference to the phantom pain in a way. Our tribes feel this distance from our culture and it feels almost like a pain you can’t get rid of until you actually take the time to interpret yourself and who you actually are.

In the video you see Snake and the Code Talker sit down for a ceremony. Usually when gathering for a peace pipe ceremony, it is either for honoring someone, for the passing of a loved one, or even if a person is troubled and cannot find the answer they are looking for. I think this may prove to be a pivotal point in the game, as what happens when sitting down and talking with an elder during a ceremony, your most truest emotions come from within and pour out from inside you. Maybe it’s possible that the Code Talker helps Snake realize who he truly is? Maybe he shows Snake that the path laid out for him isn’t going to be anything short of difficult, and to truly overcome it, he must have to become the spirit he tucked away for his country when he was first recruited? Self realization is the key to these ceremonies, and I wouldn’t doubt that along the line Snake has a sort of epiphany from him that coerces the game in a more hellish persona, enacted on him from years of pain he endured. Much like the pain felt from Native Americans, much like a phantom pain.

Bonus Image
While researching Native American mythology we found some interesting similarities between Big Boss and the venomous horned “big snake” of Navajo legend. Made this infographic to outline them.

navajo_great_snake_big_boss_venom_snake_art-eaterThis was mostly for fun. We’re not absolutely insisting this must be the primary inspiration for Big Boss in The Phantom Pain, just that the symbolism overlaps nicely. It’s fun to spot these similarities, and it really speaks to the powerful mythos of Metal Gear that you can relate it to so many timeless things. And who knows? Kojima and crew are pretty crazy knowledgable. Maybe Code Talker will end up giving Big Boss a lesson in Navajo lore! (After all, if Big Boss can be The Red Ogre Who Cried, maybe he can be the Navajo big snake too!)

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Author: Richmond

I am a professional game artist who wants everyone to love art as much as I do!

7 thoughts on “Words That Kill: Metal Gear and the Genocide of Native Americans”

  1. great text, fascinating as the Kojima team can do and bring to light serious issues to games that will make a enormer success.
    I´m Brazilian and here we have a big discussion about it the native indians ,how to treat our Indians and their rights and lands ?, which can already imagine how it will end .

  2. This is fantastically well written and heartbreaking at the same time.

    The sections on Native Americans were really hard to read. Annie Smith’s poem was even harder to listen to. It just blows my mind what humans can do to other humans.

    Loved the part about Snake and the peace pipe ceremony. I’m hoping for that to be a really exploratory part into Snake’s psyche and I would love to see him express his pain in a way we’ve never really seen before.

    The stuff on horned Snakes in the Navajo culture was fascinating too. I absolutely love how the games so many different elements together. Really great article, and I look forward to more :).

    ————–

    I had a question I hope you can answer too. I really would like to be able to make parallels like this on my own, spot symbolism, analyse etc, that sort of thing, as I find it fascinating to read articles such as these. But I absolutely suck at this stuff haha. Did you learn this, have you always been able to do it, can it even be learned?

    Many thanks.

  3. I enjoyed this post as a huge Metal Gear fan. I too have always loved the inclusion of serious thematic and symbolic material into the games. They are so much more than games to me. They are not just a way to mindlessly pass the time. When you play a Metal Gear Solid game, your thinking is challenged. I view the world differently, and with greater understanding, than I would had I never played these games.

    It is good to remember the people who first tamed the lands of the Americas, it is good to not scatter their sorrow to the heartless sea of time forgot.

  4. This is interesting. I think the analysis would be strengthened if you provided some cited works to back up your arguments – what you say is plausible, but I’d like to do some more reading to confirm what you’ve said.

  5. It is amazing that while the genocides of “native” peoples occurred since man walked the Earth, only one designation belonging to the Americas are constantly brought up. It is because other countries throughout history have thoroughly eradicated their native populations to the point where no one ever mentions them or cares to bring them up compared to the American Indian designation.

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